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Bequests and Beneficiary Designations: Simple Ways to Leave a Legacy

Photo of author, Kathleen McDermott.
Kathleen McDermott
Business Development Manager and Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services

Let’s face it, unless you are a large nonprofit, implementing a planned giving program can be overwhelming and costly. However, the challenges of developing a program and the related costs shouldn’t be barriers to at least implementing the basics. All you need to do is let your donors and constituents know you are open for business and ready to accept charitable legacies through bequests and beneficiary designations.


According to Giving USA 2020, in 2019 over $43.21 billion was given to charity through bequests. Fortunately, marketing bequests for your organization is easy, inexpensive, and simple for the donor too!

Simply put, a bequest is a gift made through one’s will. Bequests are attractive to donors because they are revocable (the will can always be changed), a bequest doesn’t compromise a person’s current financial security, and provides for an estate tax deduction.

Some of your donors may have already named your organization but when you are having conversations with your donors and patrons, listen for verbal cues such as: I want to make a difference, I wish I could do more, I’m grateful for the services you offer and want to help others, I believe my children are well taken care of, I wish to share with those less fortunate, I don't want my estate to be eroded by taxes.

Beneficiary Designations

A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy, retirement account or investment portfolio as the recipient of those assets in the event of the account holder's death. Most of the time, the designated beneficiary is a spouse, child, or another loved one. However, charities can be partial or solo beneficiaries too. In fact, many people use this method of philanthropy when there are other estate assets to support family members and loved ones.

Beneficiary designations are attractive for the same reasons as bequests plus, there is no cost to making a change, an attorney isn’t needed, the change can be made quickly, and there is plenty of flexibility for gifting options (sole beneficiary, one of the primary beneficiaries, contingent beneficiary).

Some additional verbal cues include: Most of my assets are in my retirement plan, and I just updated my will and don’t want to change it.

How to Get Started

  1. As with any fundraising campaign, start by creating a compelling case for support. Be sure to define why a legacy program is important, how a legacy gift will support the organization’s mission for the long-term, and what outcomes are expected as a result of the support.
  2. Begin by marketing your program with a simple legacy language on your donor letters, marketing collateral, and website. Avoid technical jargon. For example, use the phrase “gift in your will” instead of “bequest”.
  3. Share donor testimonials. A donor’s decision to make a bequest or beneficiary designation often comes with an emotional story. Ask for permission to document and share these so others will be encouraged to make a similar commitment. Incorporate these stories into your newsletters, website, and appeal letters.
  4. Once you’ve enjoyed some success, consider investing in permanent materials such as brochures and videos.

If you are an individual considering a legacy gift, consider reaching out to a trusted advisor who can help you make the right choice for your unique situation. For nonprofit organizations interested in learning more about developing a legacy program, please click here.

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